HUNDREDS of thousands of BBC radio listeners in England are to lose their local Sunday-morning religious programmes as part of wide-ranging changes to the network. From this autumn, the local programmes are to be replaced by regional programmes, and the 39 local stations will be organised into 13 groups.
While London and Manchester keep their programmes, the new programme for the east of England covers an area from north London to the north-Norfolk coast.
Although audiences have declined, about 800,000 listeners tune in each week to the BBC local radio programmes featuring a range of faith perspectives.
The cuts form part of a controversial restructuring of the network. Resources are being switched from live radio to online output, such as podcasts and social-media content.
The plans, which include stations sharing output after 2 p.m. each weekday, have prompted BBC journalists to go on strike, and MPs to voice their opposition.
The response from the Church of England has been strangely low-key. One senior bishop whom I approached declined to comment, saying that the issue was at risk of becoming “weaponised” by the BBC’s opponents. No bishop has spoken out in the House of Lords. There was a complete absence of questions or comment about the cuts in the General Synod last month.
The Bishop of Newcastle, Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, is looking to the future. She told me: “Local radio is fundamentally about storytelling at a local level. It gives an opportunity for celebrating good news, as well as speaking truth to power when it is needed, giving people a voice in their communities. Far from diluting local output, there’s an opportunity to strengthen it. Is there courage to do that? The ball is firmly in the BBC’s court.”
A few bishops have voiced criticism. In May, the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham Usher, wrote on Twitter: “The regionalisation of BBC local radio is a major mistake, impacting communities and reducing stories.” The Bishop of Warrington, the Rt Revd Bev Mason, has also criticised the cuts.
Yet, sadly, there has not been a significant outcry from the C of E about cuts that will affect many — often older — listeners, and those with limited access to online media.
OTHERS, however, have made their feelings known. The trustees of the Sandford St Martin Trust, which promotes religious programming, wrote to the BBC’s Director General, Tim Davie, to protest. They voiced the concern that “the proposed changes will impact negatively on both the representation of the UK’s different faith communities and the provision of religious and ethical content for audiences.”
Mr Davie responded that the BBC remained “committed to local programming when our audiences are highest, particularly at Breakfast and mid-morning on weekdays and our live Sports coverage through the week. Audience behaviours are changing as more and more turn to online services for local information and when you combine that with budgetary constraints and inflation, we have to make some difficult choices.”
Jason Horton, then acting director of BBC Local, also responded, pointing out that the stations remained “committed to the representation of the UK’s different faith communities and the provision of religious and ethical content for audiences across England.” The new Sunday-morning faith programmes would be “of the highest quality week in, week out . . . because we genuinely understand how important it is to bring different faith traditions together”.
BUT the BBC’s claims have been challenged by media professionals. The Revd Dr Christopher Landau, a former BBC World Service religious-affairs correspondent, said: “The cuts to religious output undermine the very core of public-service broadcasting. There is simply no way that the new regional programmes on Sunday mornings can connect with listeners, and reflect their local reality, with the same depth. It’s sad to see the BBC ending valued local services which cost such a tiny proportion of its budget.”
Canon Tim Daykin, who produced and presented the Sunday breakfast programme on BBC Radio Solent for 17 years, explained: “BBC local radio brought faith into listeners’ homes. It connected with those who have lost touch with their local church; for many, it is their church. It celebrated the achievements of faith communities and modelled conversations between people of different faiths.
“I have real concerns about the lack of knowledge and expertise among the producers and presenters of faith programmes on BBC local radio. How are stories going to be found in the new huge areas, and how will the BBC keep track and ensure that local still means local?”
In contrast, Steve Cox, who chairs the Christians in Media network, said: “‘The BBC is being dragged screaming into a fast-changing media landscape. The future is already here. The question is: how can the BBC move into this future without losing its distinctive local identity and loyal audience?”
Churches and other faith groups are firmly rooted in their local communities. So, it is disappointing not to see C of E leaders speaking out strongly when our national broadcasting network is weakening its grass-roots coverage.
The Revd Peter Crumpler is a self-supporting minister in St Albans diocese, and a former director of communications at Church House, Westminster.